A Flood, a Boxcutter and a Son’s Pursuit to Keep His Father’s Legacy

When a pipe burst in a warehouse that housed the works of painter Natume Miller, puddles flooded the storage facility, destroying hundreds of drawings and paintings, it was an eye opener for Miller’s son, Danny Miller. It made me wake up. He rushed into action.

Miller, who died of a brain tumor in 1998 at the age of 49, was a prolific painter for many years, painting one painting a day, and his work rivaled that of artists with much longer careers. . The January 2018 floods destroyed some 600 of his works, but they were part of his artistry.

Danny, the middle of three sons, collected as many wet boxes as he could and stuffed them in the trunk of his car. It would be more than two years before he returned to them.

“When the pandemic hit, I was like, ‘Okay, I have time,'” Danny, 41, who owns a creative design firm, said in a recent interview. “My days give me a breather,” he said. “I thought this was a sign. Everything happened very quickly.”

Day in and day out during the coronavirus lockdown, Danny has his cutting machine in hand, examining boxes of Natume’s work and sketches. Twenty-five years after his father’s death, and after an intimate reunion with his father’s work, Danny presents some of the bright, naturalistic paintings produced in the artist’s final years. is on display at “Nachume Miller: Suns & Illusions”. David Benlimon Gallery in Manhattan. This colorful series pays tribute to his vitality.

Nathumé is a German-born Israeli painter who moved to New York in 1974. She was a painter, colorist, draftsman and family lover. At 29, he was one of the youngest artists to present with the group in 1978. exhibition A gathering of up-and-coming talent at the Guggenheim Museum. 10 Years Later, He Has a Successful Solo exhibition The Museum of Modern Art in New York showcases atmospheric works, from small pencil and oil sketches to mural-sized paintings.

The show revealed that Miller “is someone who sees similarities in both Turner and Pollock, the former romanticizing storms at sea and the latter exploring content with abstract gestures.” On the dot,” writes Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times review of MoMA. show. (MoMA’s exhibits are mostly in private collections now, but a few in warehouses survived the flood).

Carla McCarty“Miller’s vision of chaos seems to be the result of pure intuition,” she wrote in her pamphlet essay, then assistant curator of architecture and design at MoMA. She added, “The ability to simultaneously evoke a sense of fascination and awe of the unknown gives the art its multidimensional character.”

That sense of awe became consistent and took many forms during Natume’s career, including landscape, abstraction, line drawing, baked wax, and colorism.

Nathumé, whose parents are the only Holocaust survivors in her family, gravitated towards dark themes and figures in her early work, including the heavy use of black and images of dying children.

“He was fascinated by disaster from an early age,” said his sister, Sarah Bratcher. “I think that by painting he got rid of all these subjects, all these nightmares.”

Nathumé dreamed of moving to New York to become an international artist, but his career was interrupted when he enlisted in the Israeli army after high school. After completing his military service, he was drafted again in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a haunting experience that Danny said had left him with a grudge against Israel.

Natume’s ambitions grew even stronger when she received a scholarship from the Israeli-American Cultural Foundation to study at New York’s Visual Arts School and then join the Foundation’s faculty. He married his girlfriend Ruth and moved to the United States in 1974.

In New York, Nathumé shifted his focus from figurative work to sublime landscape painting, and threw himself into his fatherly work, teaching sculpture, painting and drawing for twenty years at the SVA. Miller’s three sons grew up in Natume’s living and working hub on her 11th floor of her 12-story building in the Flatiron district. Natume’s studio was only nine flights away. (Art collector Mela Rubel asked her doctor husband to deliver Danny in exchange for Natume’s painting.)

Danny grew up knocking on his father’s studio door after school. “You know he’s been there recently if you smell like turpentine through the door,” he said. Sometimes Danny would just sit and watch his father work. On other days, he painted on his child-sized easel.

“If I was struggling, he would pick up a brush and show me, and it would be perfect,” Danny said. “It was like magic.”

Throughout the ’80s, Natume worked in two Manhattan spaces, Exit Art and EM Donahue Gallery (now Proposition Gallery). At a time when neogeo, new geometries and avant-garde experiments dominated the scene, the traditional drafting techniques behind Natume’s abstract landscapes seemed all but a thing of the past, says Donahue. author Ronald Sosinski said.

“At that point, it would have seemed outdated to do anything with landscapes and nature,” he says. “He was the exact opposite of what was most popular at the time.”

Having exhibited Natume’s work in five gallery shows, Sosinski was drawn to Natume’s subsequent encaustic paintings (wax) and work as a “true colorist”.

When illness struck, Natume’s art veered away from realism and into fantastic works. In 1999, Soszynski exhibited Natüme’s last series, The Sun and Illusions, which Soszynski called “Paintings of Death”.

“He was desperately holding on to the sunshine as a symbol of what life is,” he said. “He saw the light from the other world.”

Before Natume died, when Danny was 15 years old, Natume entrusted him with the weight of preserving her legacy.

In March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, Danny woke up at 6am, made coffee and went outside to release chickens from the chicken coop in his backyard in Accord, New York. Go to the basement and start cutting open the salvaged boxes one by one.

For three months, afraid of losing momentum, Danny flipped through the remnants of his life between pages of sketches: business cards, Chinese takeout menus, to-do lists.

He was at odds with his parents and became aware of his father’s feelings about the changing art scene. He caught a glimpse of Natume’s interests and political leanings. The notes in the margin became a timestamp for one of the most fruitful periods of the artist’s career.

“I kind of felt like I was seeing him again,” Danny said.

Partnering with a German publisher in 2021 Kerber to publish a monographNatume Miller: Behind the Painting‘, a compilation of sketchbook and diary entries from 1976 to 1998, began to sow the seeds of an exhibition showcasing Natume’s final works.

A quarter-century after Natume’s death, his name faded into the backdrop of the fickle art world, but his late towering paintings, exploding with light, feel immortal to his son.

“His last painting had an overwhelmingly positive feel,” Danny said. “I don’t know how to judge that. He wasn’t happy to die.”

Natume Miller: Suns & Illusions

At the David Benrimon Gallery in Manhattan until July 10th. david benlimon.com.

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